Runkeeper was one of the original iOS apps. It started off simply: turn it on and it would monitor how far and fast you ran. But the really interesting stuff began once Runkeeper opened up beyond the phone.
As Runkeeper began to support more devices it released a public API, and suddenly it was sitting on top of a mountain of health and fitness data. Tracking diet and exercise is just the spear tip. We chatted with the company founder Jason Jacobs to find out where fitness tracking is headed, how next generation sensors are going to track your every movement, and why data is about to become prescriptive.
Runkeeper is a mobile fitness platform. We started with a mobile app that enabled people to turn their phone into a fitness tracking device to track their runs, walks, hikes, and bike rides and built up a large community of millions of users. We found they didn’t just want to track their running and activity, but a bunch of different things related to their health and that’s the way we’re heading.
When did you launch?
We founded the company in 2008, and we launched in August 2008. It was one of the first 200 apps in the iTunes App Store.
How can it make me a better athlete?
We have coaching built in, so that as you do your activity you can set a target pace and in your headphones if can tell you if you’re ahead or behind. We also have a program where we’ve partnered with well-known coaches and taken their programs and placed them online. It will push your lessons out to your mobile devices each day — for example if there’s an interval workout it will tell you when to walk and when to run. Your phone is serving as a personal trainer as you are doing your activity. If you follow a program — we have everything from 5k classes to marathon classes with set time goals — you can actually be grouped with a group of people doing a same goal at the same time. You can be reprimanded or encouraged just by seeing that you do it. All you have to do is so what your phone says. You don’t need to think, if you do what it says it will help you meet your goals.
You can also broadcast your activity live as you’re doing it. We have a live tracking feature called Runkeeper Live that simulates the social interaction of running a race. You can set it to notify people on Facebook and Twitter that you’re running live as you’re doing it. When you get back you can see all the comments from your friends and loved ones, or take pictures and they’re geotagged as you go.
Why did you expand past the phone?
We built up a big community of people using our system. While they were using us for running, there were all these other things coming out for health — like Wi-Fi body scales that will automatically upload to the cloud, things that could track how you sleep, and applications that track your diet, weight, diabetes management even. They were using Withings scales, Fitbits, various heart rate monitors and Garmin watches. We decided to support that. We saw clearly that our users were using more of this third party stuff and wanted to keep it in one place.
The more aspects of a health they were tracking, the more engaged they were and the more results that got from our platform. Once we had integrated with 4-5 devices we thought it was really big. We decided to open our API. It lets people keep things on their Runkeeper profile — the health graph API. It’s not just about apps ind devices to send us information, it’s also for people looking to build on top of data. Corporate wellness departments, for example, can just integrate once and access all the data. In the last nine months our userbase has tripled, and the API has 40 integrations, most are ones that come inbound to us.
For example, Earndit. Before the health graph Earndit was integrating with fitness APIs and all kinds of services like Nike Plus data — going through one device at a time. With the health graph they could integrate once and then get everything. They can tie in and access all kinds of devices, users and data.
Is there an inherent benefit to tracking all this stuff?
There’s no inherent benefit to tracking. Tracking is the ticket to admission. It’s only really taken off in the last three years. The reason it’s taken so long has been all the friction. Devices were big and clunky and expensive and not very accurate and you couldn’t get the data off them easily. What’s happened over the last three years is we’ve started down the path of the friction going away. In the last three years you’ve had devices like Fitbit, Withings, Jawbone UP and swim tracking watches coming out. And what’s happening is that these sensors keep getting lighter, smaller, more accurate, and easier to use. It’s not mainstream yet but its getting there.
What will it take to become mainstream?
If you start looking out 5-10 years you’re not going to have to do anything to collect this information. It’s going to be passively collected. It’s going to be baked into phones and even the clothing that you wear. It’s going to be everywhere.
And the data will get better You’re going to see ways to make your data actionable. The most exciting stuff is when this data starts getting prescriptive. When you’ve got all your data in one place — sleep, diet, hydration levels, previous exercise, everything — if all that stuff is there and the system knows all your information and your goals these systems can start being prescriptive.
When you have the phone with you everywhere you go, why isn’t hat phone telling you what to do.
To date, the only people who had access to that kind of data are people who put it into their own Excel files. There’s no way the mainstream would have the patience for that. It’s like cars. The mainstream regular person doesn’t want to know how to fix the engine, they want to know where a good mechanic is. Today you have to look under the hood to do fitness maintenance. Where this is going is that when this stuff gets truly mainstream, even if you don’t look under the hood you will still be able to drive a reliable car.
Fitmodo runs every Wednesday, covering the world of personal fitness technology. Each week, I’ll post my fitness stats here on Fitmodo.